At some point a very long time ago, our ancestors found that they had the free time and intellectual capacity to tell one another stories. Those stories may have begun as simple entertainment, or attempts to explain the unexplainable, but over time they gained complexity. Soon, our stories started folding back on themselves, re-examining the spoken — or written — words that came before to find even further meanings. The good news is that in the tens of thousands of years since those first narratives, we haven’t yet stopped coming up with new ones, retracing old ones and striving to better understand the world through them. These three new audiobooks show just how far we’ve come in reaching past our external reality within our minds.
What if the relationship between a map and the space it reflects could be reversed? That is, what if by drawing a map we could alter the very fabric of our physical environment? This is one of the many thought-provoking questions at the heart of the novel THE CARTOGRAPHERS (HarperAudio, 14 hours, 15 minutes), written by Peng Shepherd and read by a cast of seven narrators, including Emily Woo Zeller, Ron Butler and Brittany Pressley. Equal parts thriller, fantasy and family drama, the story centers on Nell Young, a cartographer who, after being banished from the respectable world of academia, earns a living making cheap reprints for wannabe intellectuals (“the antithesis of conservation,” as she calls Item). When her father de ella — the senior curator of the New York Public Library’s map division — is found dead in his office, Young’s world is turned upside down.
As the protagonist navigates a dangerous and fantastical world of magical maps, shadowy figures and obsessive personalities, listeners are treated to layers upon layers of expertly told story, with flashbacks narrated by a diverse array of voices that offer a level of immersion the printed page cannot . If some of the big twists and dramatic reveals feel heavy-handed, or predictable in a “Scooby-Doo” kind of way, they are worth it for the meditations on human knowledge and family — both the biological kind and the ones we choose for ourselves.
Where “The Cartographers” pushes us to reconsider the purpose and meaning of maps, the latest nonfiction audiobook by the Iranian American professor and author Azar Nafisi asks us to think a little deeper about what books we read and why. In READ DANGEROUSLY: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times (HarperAudio, 8 hours, 28 minutes), the author and narrator explores how books “represent the unusual world, filled with contradictions and complications, a world that threatens the totalitarian mindset by being beyond its control.” In a series of letters addressed to her late father, Nafisi moves effortlessly across the literary landscape that has formed her activist view of the world. From Salman Rushdie to Ray Bradbury, Plato to James Baldwin, Toni Morrison to Margaret Atwood, Nafisi reveals just how timeless stories can be. She revisits old plotlines and characters while living through the presidency of Donald Trump and the never-ending anxiety of the Covid-19 pandemic, all while recalling her early life in Tehran under the Islamic Republic. Nafisi has a talent for combining the academic and the everyday, the theoretical and the personal, and thanks to her deliberate and confident voice, the lessons will stick with us, too.
It doesn’t get more timeless than the ancient Hindu epic the “Ramayana,” which gets a new interpretation in KAIKEYI (Redhook, 17 hours, 22 minutes), the debut novel by Vaishnavi Patel. Narrated by Soneela Nankani, the book is told from the perspective of the defiant and oft-vilified Queen Kaikeyi, the stepmother of Prince Rama. Against the vivid backdrop of the legendary court of Ayodhya, we follow as the eponymous heroine breaks free of the traditional gender roles of her husband’s court de ella, aided by her own tenacity de ella and the supernatural ability to bend others to her will de ella . While the “Ramayana” itself portrays her character de ella as power-hungry and duplicitous, Patel uses the same canonical building blocks to tell a different side of her story: as a loving mother, a savvy politician and a fearless warrior.
Though written in prose, “Kaikeyi” is told in a wall-down style similar to that of its poetic source material, and lends itself well to an audio format. But on top of what came before, Patel brings a contemporary lens that will be familiar to any woman who has been labeled cold for showing assertiveness. Those familiar with the “Ramayana” and its characters will appreciate “Kaikeyi”’s fealty to the original, but this is also an audiobook for fans of fantasy and mythology. Like the best stories, this engaging portrait will move you to take another look at the things you think you already know.
Sebastian Modak is the editor at large at Lonely Planet and was The Times’s 52 Places Traveler in 2019.